Last month I visited Mayotte, an island located between Madagascar and Mozambique in the Mozambique Channel. Mayotte is part of the Comoros archipelago, but unlike the rest of the Comoros, it is part of France.
In 1975, when the rest of the Comoros became independent, Mayotte elected to remain with France. In 2011, the association got even tighter when Mayotte became an overseas department of France. But despite its integration into France, Mayotte is a world apart from the mainland. Its population is largely Sunni Muslim and its most common language is not French but Shimaore, a tongue related to Swahili.
Mayotte is incredibly lush. There are lemurs and lizards on the land, dolphins skipping along the surface of the sea, and huge bats with wingspans as wide as eagles hovering above. The diving and snorkeling is world-class, reefs buzzing with life. The tourist infrastructure is operated largely by métros, or French people from metropolitan France. It would be easy to spend an entire vacation there enveloped by a “métro” bubble. It became clear very quickly that we would have to make an effort to engage with Comorian culture.
I was keen to try Comorian food. Food is a good route to a sense of culture – maybe the best. The Petit Futé guide to Mayotte lists a favorable review of Zam-Zam, a restaurant in the southern town of Bandrélé, conveniently near our guesthouse. One afternoon we set out to find it. After a 15-minute walk we came across a sign for it. A man saw us looking around and pointed to a yellow shack on a side street. He told us the restaurant would reopen later that evening.That man turned out to be Abdou, the owner of Zam-Zam. A friendly fellow originally from the island of Grand Comore, Abdou was charming and eager to chat. His English is good, too. On an island where few people speak any English at all, this was appreciated.
The food at Zam-Zam was fantastic. There was coconut chicken with a delicious, perfumed rice, mataba (cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk with fish) and pilao, a spicy chicken and rice dish sharpened with coriander and cumin. This was the best meal we had in Mayotte without a doubt. It was so good in fact that we returned later in the week for lunch.
Abdou is an entrepreneur. When he brought over the check he handed us a brochure with photos of his rental property and restaurant in Bangoi-Kouni in the north of Grand Comore, the most populous island in the independent country of the Comoros. The images got under my skin. Shot in a friendly, amateur vein, they depict white sand beaches, a simple thatched cabin nearly enveloped by equatorial greenery and Abdou’s son stretching out his arms in front of a lake. The brochure suggests “sea excursions, traditional fishing, cooking classes and musical evenings.”
Mayotte may not be major tourist destination but it has an easy, familiar infrastructure for visitors. Independent Comoros, however, can claim far less in the way of tourist infrastructure. And this is why Abdou’s brochure is of such interest. An invitation turns difficult places into easier ones. Abdou’s brochure, it seemed to me, was a true invitation to take the plunge and visit Grand Comore.
In other words, if his kitchen can take such good care of me on Mayotte, I’m quite sure his rental house would do the job on Grand Comore.
This is one piece of marketing collateral I won’t be recycling anytime soon.
[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]